Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

11/12/2012 (4 years ago)

Catholic Online (

Like St. Anselm, let us rise up to God--that than which nothing greater can be conceived--with two wings.

St. Anselm went from faith and from prayer to reason in a sort of existential continuum.  But there is no reason that one cannot take his proof and step up by the use of reason alone to see that it is reasonable to believe in God, and then from that threshold to take the further step further by an act of faith and prayer.


By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

Catholic Online (

11/12/2012 (4 years ago)

Published in Year of Faith

Keywords: illative sense, God, natural theology, proofs of God, St. Anselm, Ontological Proof, Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - In prior articles of this series on converging and convincing proofs of God, we have spoken about the illative sense.  Following that, we explored proofs of God's existence based upon the existence of desire and truth.  In this installment, we will focus on a unique argument, the "unum argumentum," that came to St. Anselm of Canterbury (ca. 1033-1109) one day in sudden inspiration after praying Matins, and which he bequeathed to us in the work entitled Proslogion.  It has been called the ontological argument.

In itself, the argument is quite simple.

It starts with a definition of God, a definition that can be accepted by anyone, including the fool who says in his heart that there is no God. (Cf. Ps. 14:1).

God is defined as "that than which a greater cannot be thought," aliquid quo nihil maius cogitari  possit.   This is a being with the fullness of perfection, of power, of intelligence, of truth, and of love.  There is no perfection that can be thought of which is not present in that than which a greater cannot be thought. 

Importantly, even an atheist can understand such a concept.  That sort of concept exists in his mind, although he would deny (though, as St. Anselm would show, inconsistently) that the being identified by such a concept has existence outside his mind.

The atheist can also conceive in his mind the possibility that such a perfect being can exist outside of his mind, if for no other reason than to deny it.  (How can he deny it, if he cannot conceive that that than which no greater can be thought may also exist?)  So the atheist can conceive that "that than which a greater cannot be thought" can exist both in his mind and outside of his mind, that is to say in reality also.

This puts the atheist in an immediate quandary because he has two thoughts in his mind that contradict each other.

He has in his mind the concept "that than which a greater cannot be thought" as existing only in his own mind (in intellectu), and "that than which a greater cannot be thought" as existing in his own mind and in reality (in intellectu and also in re).  Yet something existing both in the mind and in reality is greater than something only existing in the mind and not existing in reality.
He cannot hold both concepts simultaneously, and the former must yield to the latter, and so that than which a greater can be thought must exist both in the mind and in reality.  This necessarily means that God exists in reality.

"If," St. Anselm observes, "that than which a greater cannot be thought exists in the mind alone, this same thing than which a greater cannot be thought is that than which a greater can be thought," namely that that which a greater cannot be thought exists both in the mind and reality.  "But this is obviously impossible," St. Anselm concludes.

"Therefore there is absolutely no doubt that something than which a greater cannot be thought exists both in the mind and in reality."

In other words, the very thought of the concept of God would seem to require, as a necessary corollary, that God also exists.  This is the only way to avoid the quandary.

The proof has given many doubters many fits.  Even the atheist Bertrand Russell is said to have exclaimed one day after having bought a tin of tobacco, "Great God in Boots!--the ontological argument [of St. Anselm] is sound!"  But it didn't seem to dissuade him from his disbelief, though he admitted that "it is easier to feel convinced that [the ontological argument of St. Anselm] must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies."

Frequently, Immanuel Kant has been invoked to disprove St. Anselm's ontological proof.  Kant's argument against St. Anselm works if existence adds something to the concept in the mind, for then the two concepts are different, and being different cannot contradict each other.  But Kant's disproof fails if we understand St. Anselm to mean that existing in reality (in re) "means belonging to experience as a whole, which experience cannot but be informative about the realm of the real."

According to Aidan Nichols, St. Anselm's argument is "founded upon the language of perfection."  St. Anselm's definition of God--that than which a greater cannot be conceived--is equivalent to proposing the "the unconditionally perfect."  If, we can talk of God in this way, and if we can conceive of God in this way, then Anselm's proof "rules out the possibility of intelligently denying God's existence." 

Only a fool--if he can conceive of the concept "that than which a greater cannot be thought" in his mind--can also set his face against such a concept existing in reality, in other words having a basis in experience as a whole.  He would be placed in the quandary of admitting perfection has a basis in reality and denying perfection has a basis in reality.  As Aidan Nichols puts it: "It does not make sense to deny the purchase on reality of the language of unsurpassable perfection."

Aidan Nichols explains why the language of perfection suggests the reality of perfection.  Language dealing with external objects (say, for example, an apple) participates in a "shared public realm," in other words, something outside the self.  Otherwise, we would not be able to communicate with each other, for language, if not about something outside of us, would be meaningful only to one's self.  But it's clearly not.

When we use a word such as "apple," it has a meaning for us, but it also has a public meaning, a conventional meaning, and one that it based upon reality.  Otherwise, our friend would not understand what we mean by "apple" if we asked him for one.  He understands what we mean by "apple," and he understands it as something real, because that shared concept of "apple" has a basis in reality.

Suppose, however, that we use the word "squared circle."  Such a word has no meaning to us, nor a public meaning, nor a basis in reality, though the individual references in the word by themselves, "square" and "circle," do.  If we asked our friend for a "squared circle" he would not be able to understand what we meant, and would probably think us insane since we are asking for something that has no basis in reality.

Words can also be used in a manner that exploits their basis in reality, though they do not deal in real things.  For example, if we refer to mythical "unicorns," what we do is paste together words and therefore concepts that are based upon reality but which are put together to mean not something nonsensical, but only something unreal.  Thus a unicorn is a "white" "horselike creature" with a "single straight horn" projecting from its "forehead."  It is a fictitious patchwork of things which, separately, have a basis in reality.

Is the language "that than which no greater can be conceived"--the language of absolute perfection--the language of apples, of square circles, or unicorns? 

According to Aidan Nichols, "Anselm shows how our capacity to use the language of absolute perfection makes it unintelligible to deny that such language opens out onto the realm of the real."  In other words, talk about absolute perfection is the language of apples, not of square circles or unicorns.

The philosopher Heidegger referred to language as the "house of being," das Haus de Seins.  If language is the "house of being," then the language of perfection--that than which nothing greater can be conceived--resides in the center of that "house of being," like Christ the Pantokrator, the maker of all things, sits on his throne.

St. Anselm, of course, realized that this concept that existed in reality--that than which nothing greater can be conceived--was a person, and had a name.  This he knew by faith before he ever starting thinking about it.  But the proof he gave of God is based on reason alone, and for it he worked backwards as it were, from faith to reason.  His proof is therefore a priori, and not a posteriori, as most proofs of God based upon reason are.  This was true to his motto fides quaerens intellectum: faith seeking understanding.

St. Anselm went from faith and from prayer to reason in a sort of existential continuum.  But there is no reason that one cannot take his proof and step up by the use of reason alone to see that it is reasonable to say that God exists, and then from that threshold to take the further step further by an act of faith and prayer and believe in the God who became man.

"Lord, you are then not only that than which nothing greater can be thought; you are something greater than it is possible to think about.  For since it is possible to think that this could exist, if you are not that thing, then a greater than you can be thought; and that will not do. . . . . And this is you, O Lord our God.  You therefore so truly are, O lord my God, that you cannot even be thought not to be."

"The God who is the Lord of the Church is also the God of the inquiring mind," says Aidan Nichols.  This linking of St. Anselm's ontological proof of God with the God Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, and Jesus Christ echoes the words of Blessed John Paul II in his encyclical on the relationship of faith and reason, Fides et Ratio: "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth."

Like St. Anselm, let us rise up to God--that than which nothing greater can be conceived--with two wings.


Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at


'Help give every student and teacher Free resources for a world-class moral Catholic education'

Copyright 2017 - Distributed by THE CALIFORNIA NETWORK

Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for DECEMBER 2016
End to Child-Soldiers: That the scandal of child-soldiers may be eliminated the world over.
Evangelization: Europe: That the peoples of Europe may rediscover the beauty, goodness, and truth of the Gospel which gives joy and hope to life.


More Year of Faith

The Happy Priest on the Baptism of the Lord and our own Baptism Watch

Image of

By Fr. James Farfaglia

The consideration of Jesus' baptism, gives us an opportunity to remember our own baptism.  If you do not know the date of your own baptism, it is a good idea to go through your personal files and find out when it occurred.  CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic ... continue reading

Regret of Judas or Repentance of Peter?

Image of

By Fr Samuel Medley, SOLT

I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; My face I did not shield from buffets and spitting. HYTHE, KENT, UK (Catholic Online) - I didn't steal any cookies mommy! says a little boy whose mother asked him if he was hungry, wiping the ... continue reading

Pentecost: St Cyril of Jerusalem on The Living Water of the Holy Spirit Watch

Image of

By Catholic Online

The Spirit makes one man a teacher of divine truth, inspires another to prophesy, gives another the power of casting out devils, enables another to interpret holy Scripture. The Spirit strengthens one man's self-control, shows another how to help the poor, teaches ... continue reading

The Wedding Invitation of Jesus: We are Called to Live the Nuptial Mystery Watch

Image of There will be no giving or taking in marriage in the kingdom to come because the very purpose and meaning of marriage itself will be fulfilled. (See, e.g. Mk. 12:18-27) We will be living in the fullness of the Communion of Love with the Trinity. The symbol will give way to the eternal reality, the Sacrament will be fulfilled in the fullness of communion. All of human love will be completed in the Love which lasts forever.

By Deacon Keith Fournier

It is not accidental that the Bible, from beginning to the end, uses marriage as a metaphor and a symbol to reveal the plan of God for the whole human race.  Marriage was God's plan from the beginning as we see in the first book of Genesis. Throughout the Old ... continue reading

The Sower. The Seed. The Field. Understanding the Christian Mission Watch

Image of

By Deacon Keith Fournier

"A sower went out to sow. And, as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for ... continue reading

Reflection on the Catholic Catechism: Understanding the Bible Watch

Image of

By Michael Terheyden

How we interpret the Bible is of immense importance! It directly affects what we believe about Christ, the Church, and our faith, but it is also related to many of the grave problems in our society and the world. Yet, despite the gravity of this situation, we have good ... continue reading

Christ the King, the Year of Faith and the Catholic Counterculture Watch

Image of On this Solemnity of the Feast of Christ the King, the Year of Faith inaugurated by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI comes to a ceremonial end. However, in reality, it cannot and will not end, because Jesus Christ is King! The Year of Faith was only the beginning for those who choose to live the Life of Faith.

By Deacon Keith Fournier

We celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. It is one of many opportunities the Catholic Church year offers to each one of us to consider the creature called time, receive it as a gift, and begin to really live our lives differently.  This is one of ... continue reading

The Bones of Peter, the Successor of Peter: Close of the Year of Faith Watch

Image of The bones of St. Peter the Apostle

By Deacon Keith Fournier

On the Solemnity of the Feast of Christ the King, the Sunday which marks both the end of the Church Year and the end of the Year of Faith, inaugurated by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Pope Francis greeted thousands of the faithful and presided over Holy Mass and the ... continue reading

Fr Randy Sly on Becoming a House of Prayer Watch

Image of Jesus drives the money changers from the temple. 

With hearts clear and focused on our Lord, we can follow the advice of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Everything starts with prayer. Love to pray--feel the need to pray often during the day and take the trouble to pray. If you want to pray better, you must pray more. The more you pray, the easier it becomes. Perfect prayer does not consist of many words but in the fervor of the desire which raises the heart to Jesus. (Fr. Randy Sly)

By Father Randy Sly

Becoming a House of Prayer is the best discipline we can take on. St. Ephraem of Syria states that Virtues are formed by prayer. Prayer preserves temperance. Prayer suppresses anger. Prayer prevents emotions of pride and envy. Prayer draws into the soul the Holy ... continue reading

Jesus Weeps and Offers the Path to Peace Watch

Image of

By Deacon Keith Fournier

If this day you only knew what makes for peace- but now it is hidden from your eyes. For the days are coming upon you when your enemies will raise a palisade against you; they will encircle you and hem you in on all sides. They will smash you to the ground and your ... continue reading

All Year of Faith News


Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Subscribe to Catholic OnlineYouTube Channel

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Hebrews 8:6-13
6 As it is, he has been given a ministry as far superior as is the ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 85:8, 10, 11-12, 13-14
8 I am listening. What is God's message? Yahweh's message is peace for ... Read More

Gospel, Mark 3:13-19
13 He now went up onto the mountain and summoned those he wanted. So they ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for January 20th, 2017 Image

St. Fabian
January 20: Eusebius, born just a few years after Fabian's ... Read More